Tuesday, 3 December 2013

A Blog a view when recruiting?

I recently came across an article on the BPS Research Digest about linking bloggers words and their personalities. It looked at a study by Tal Yarkoni who analysed the content of 694 blogs, containing an average of 115,000 words written over an average period of about two years. It then matched this with the authors’ answers to on-line personality questionnaires.

The trawl of data by Tal Yarkoni allowed him to zoom in on how certain words were used. Some strong correlations included Neuroticism with use of 'irony', Extroversion with 'drinks' and Openness correlated with 'ink'. While the specific correlations may or may not be important, the interesting point here is that blogs and other parts of the internet now allow new ways of examining and studying our personality types. Contrary to the idea that we use some idealised or false alter ego when on-line, our use of words and other on-line behaviours may in fact betray our real personality.

This got me thinking. In many different industries today, roles involve some customer or market facing activity. Increasingly our Facebook, Twitter or some other social media presence are part of our professional identity. I began to wonder if we should ask  some job applicants to write a blog or maintain a Twitter feed for a few weeks as part of the recruitment process? The subject matter may or may not be related to a specific job.  Rather than focus on just the content, it would be an opportunity to see how engaging, relevant and professional the candidate can be in their on-line presence. You could throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons and introduce a few trolls or incendiary comments and see how they are handled.The level of effort put in may also show how badly the candidate wants the job. The end result would inevitably be subjective but would give another understanding of the candidate, outside the comfort zone of the rehearsed interview and sanitised CV.

On the flip side, if you are hunting down the ideal job in a company you would like to work for, a blog or Twitter feed about the market or technology used in that ideal job could be a way of showing how competent you are, how badly who want it and the type of new thinking you could bring to an organisation. This is especially the case for many new jobs that previously didn't exist and don't have a defined qualification profile e.g. Social Media Marketeer, Data Scientist, SaaS Analyst. There is no one degree to qualify you for these types of jobs, you need to qualify yourself and get that across to employers. 

The take way here is that a blog is another window into who we are as people, how we behave and beyond that a source of information about how motivated, competent and suitable we may be for some jobs. This can work if you are hiring or want to be hired.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Go easy on the new guy

When you induct new employees or make a change to how current employees work, do you consider how safe or stressed they feel? Starting a new job can be a stressful enough time. We can feel under pressure to live up to our interview or CV, we might be anxious to impress a new boss or just fit in. The level of stress we feel in those type of situations could be important. There is some research from the academic world suggesting that stress and safety concerns impact negatively on students ability to learn while in school.

The same could be true in the work place. The idea is that stress makes it harder to learn, by reducing working memory and self-control. This could be particularly important in areas like induction into software development where new hires may only be hired because the current staff are very busy or there is a pre-existing product problem. Chances are their first project could be a busy one with tight deadlines.

As a software developer they may also need to learn new coding procedures, maybe a new language or use of some customised in-house development tools. This cocktail of new systems and pressure may result in induction not going as smoothly as envisaged. Productivity, quality and compliance could all take a dip and there may be a few more mistakes than expected.

The take away from this is that if you work in an area where learning new systems is a big part of induction, try to avoid dropping the new guy in the deep-end straight away. You might end up with a better trained, more productive and happier inductee. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Hope Springs Creativity

Do you hope that the weather will be fine for the weekend, that your favorite team will do well, that the government will treat you fairly in the budget? If you do and are generally the hopeful type you may also be pretty creative. 

A post by Professor Drew Boyd from the University of Cincinnati examines the research in this area and comes to the conclusion that hope predicts creativity. Professor Boyd looks at a 2009 study by Armenio Rego  which examines how employees' sense of hope explains their creative output at work. The study asked one hundred and twenty five employees to rate their personal sense of hope and happiness while their supervisors rated the employees' creativity. Based on the correlations, hope foretells creativity.

Boyd discusses how different types of hope are seen as important. Hope “requires some level of internal, sustaining force that pushes individuals to persevere in the face of challenges inherent to creative work."

So if you are hiring people for a creative role, discuss the level of hope candidates have when doing the interview. If you are hiring from a pool of current employees, look at the people you would rate as creative and then check their sense of personal hope. The correlation found by Armenio Rego may validate your initial opinion on peoples creativity. 

I hope you found this interesting.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The No Empathy Sandwich

Having worked in software for a number of years I often noticed how my workload seemed to accumulate almost from no where (I use that term deliberately). I’d find myself with multiple ‘mini’ projects on the go, tight deadlines and a fair amount of pressure. I’d sit back and wonder ‘how it came to this?’. The answer could usually be traced back to a conversation about a proposal, change request or upgrade where I agreed to take on something that in hindsight was not a good idea. It was driven by a reluctance to say ‘No’.

Where this reluctance came from, I’m not quite sure. I worked in a few start-ups where nothing was impossible, crazy deadlines and late nights were par for the course. Saying ‘No’ was not part of the culture in that environment and the customer was literally always right. Not saying ‘No’ and always acceding to customer demands, can lead to a situation where your customers run your business, not you. That is not a good thing, even in start-ups. Product road-maps get hi-jacked, innovation suffers at the expense of piecemeal tweaking and delivery.

So assuming saying ‘No’ needs to be done every now and again, is there a good or bad way of delivering the potentially bad news? Turns out there is.

I came across a neat article which explained it in an equation called the ‘Empathy Sandwich’ as “No= Empathize + Decline + Empathize Again”. For example a client says  ‘Can you add a new screen to report on XYZ?, it takes me ages to do it manually‘ . First comes a little bit of empathy ‘Ok , I see where you are coming from, it’s not easy to get time for that every week’. But then comes the Decline – ‘But I don’t have a project team I could put on that change‘. Followed up by some more empathy  ‘I hope your workload levels out, you guys do a really great job over there’.

That example might sound a touch contrived but you get the point. Saying ‘No’ in a way that shows some consideration and understanding beats a dismissive tone and helps keep the relationship going, despite the refusal.

By saying ‘No’ you will free up more time, finish more projects, deliver higher quality work and end up fire-fighting a lot less. That will make for happier customers in the long term as you can focus on innovative product development, meet the deadlines you do commit to and not get pulled between multiple piecemeal requests. You will be happier too. Who could say ‘No’ to that?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The weather is not just small talk

So, are you one for checking the weather forecast on a regular basis? We all like good weather at weekends so we can get out doors and blow off some steam. During the week we like to make sure that we wear the right clothes going to work and have our raincoat or umbrella if we need it.

It turns out however, the weather also affects how we think. It does not have to be as extreme as Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) It can affect us in far more subtle ways. 

I recently came across a 2009 study which showed that in something as specific as job interview performance it can have a real impact. The study analyzed the results of  medical-school interviews at the University of Toronto between 2004 and 2009. People interviewed on rainy days received a one per cent lower score than those interviewed on sunny days. While it seems small, the difference in scores was equivalent to a ten per cent lower total mark on the Medical College Admission Test for the university.  

The paper suggests that the mood of those conducting the interviews is lowered by the poor weather. This literally dampens their thinking when they score their candidates. If this is the case then the same cognitive influence could be at play when you have a salary review, when you try to close a big sale with a customer or when you gather some marketing material such as customer surveys. It may also play a role in performance of focus groups or any other setting where people subjectively score performance based on how they feel about it.

Try to pick a nice day for your review or that important sales meeting. If things don't work out and you are fresh out of other excuses, dodge the bullet by blaming the weather.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Make the first move

When it comes to negotiating, many people believe that it's usually best not to make the first offer. They wait for the other guy to say how much he is willing to give or ask for. A lot of people assume that by encouraging the other person to make the first offer, they gain an information advantage.

This assumption however isn't quite right. Adam Galinsky, at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management has looked at the research and found that: “more often than not, negotiators who make first offers come out ahead.”

One explanation for this is ‘anchoring’, which we have discussed in previous posts. The first offer act as an 'anchor'.  Once the first offer is made, that becomes the focal point and it gets more difficult to get it off the table and discuss a completely new number. We end up spending the negotiation trying to adjust the opening offer.

This was well demonstrated in an experiment by Greg Northcraft and Maggie Neale at the University of Arizona.  They got experienced real estate agents to inspect and estimate the independent value of a house. In what appeared to be accidental, the estate agents saw one of two different price lists for the house in question. The price list was done up by someone else. Half of the agents saw a listing price of $119,900. These agents then estimated that the house would sell for just over $114,000. The other half of the agents saw a listing price of $149,900, and they came in at a figure of $128,000. The list price should have been irrelevant but it anchored their appraisal and valuation.

So when it comes to negotiation, don't be afraid to ‘play your card first’ and put a number on the table. You don't want to spend the negotiation process counteracting the other sides opening offer and not get the chance to explain your number and its worth.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Beware of the guy with nothing to lose

I recently read a post by Alex Fradera at the BPS Occupational Digest which looked into how two different types of employees working in the same organisation would respond to change. One employee was well paid, felt valued and had an attentive boss. The other was poorly paid, under valued and disconnected from their boss.

If change was being introduced to the organisation you might expect the happier employee to be more resistive, as they have more to lose. It turns out that research specifically asking this question suggests that the better you are treated, the more open you are to change, even though you have most to lose.

The better employees felt they were treated, the less anxious they became. They had good reason to expect that if they were treated well before the change, they would continue to be treated well afterwards. The employee treated badly is already in a mind-set where they expect to be taken advantage of and the forthcoming change agenda was just another way for that to happen.

I was surprised by this, I had assumed that those with most to lose would be most anxious about losing their current cushy number. Then I thought about a large multi national insurance company I had worked in where there was a merger and major departmental changes.

The overriding feeling at the time was uncertainty as to how individual roles would turn out. We were reassured by management euphemisms about synergies and stability. Not being completely na├»ve, my colleagues and I viewed this as spin and PR, the real proof would come once the change was implemented. The feeling of uncertainty came down to trust, did we trust what we were being told?

This could be at play in the research cited by Alex Fradera. The person treated well probably trusts the employer and their change agenda, the other guy is probably very cynical and has no reason to believe that the change will lead to any good. It just means even more hassle.

So if you are changing how things work, watch out for those with nothing to lose, they could be the most resistive. If you want the change to go a little smoother, make an extra effort so that staff feel valued beforehand.

Avoid being a softie in negotiations

I recently read a very good post on the TipTapLab where it discussed haptic experience and how the way items feel influences our behavior. It highlighted a study by Ackerman, Nocera, Bargh from 2010  which showed how the weight texture and hardness of objects we come into contact with or hold, affect our decision making.

For example, the study found that heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, so maybe walk in holding brief case rather than a notepad to your next meeting or interview. It also found that hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations, so perhaps use flexible plastic glasses for drinks in your meeting rooms if you need to cut a deal. 

Interestingly on this hard/soft influence, the study found that potential car buyers were more inflexible in their price negotiations when sitting in hard rather than soft chairs. It might be worth investing in a few luxury seats and few cushions in your meeting/show rooms or sitting on a wooden chair at home when bidding on eBay.

Guess the point here is that we have impressions of hard, rigid, soft that follow into our subconscious when we physically experience them. Beware of the car salesman with the comfy chairs.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Bitter Tastes makes us harsher judges

So what do you drink when sitting at your desk, do you go for a plain stilled water or something a little more flavoured?

If you go for the latter, you may need to think about your choice of flavours. Research by Kendall Eskine at the City University of New York found that bitter flavours make us more judgemental. Eskine and colleagues asked 57 volunteers to rate how morally questionable a set of scenarios were on a scale of 1 to 100. Some of the scenarios included a man eating his already-dead dog, cousins engaging in consensual sex.

At the start and again midway through the scenarios, participants were given a bitter drink or water.

Participants given bitter drinks were much tougher in their judgements than those who drank water, giving scenarios a score that was on average 27 per cent higher. It seemed that taste perception significantly affected their moral judgments and the physical disgust (induced via a bitter taste) produced feelings of moral disgust

Participants were also asked if they were political conservatives or liberals. Interestingly, the politically conservative individuals were more strongly affected by bitter tastes than liberals

So if you are taking a client or the boss out for a drink or dinner, try and stay clear of the bitter drinks or food if you are looking to get the OK for some radical proposal. If you want them to judge a rivals proposal harshly, recommend the fish with extra lemon juice, washed down with a glass of Aperol.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Funny Works

There are many studies which espouse the value of humour in the work place. An often quoted study by Professor William Hampes looked at the relationship between humour and trust. Those who scored high on a test that measured sense of humour for social purposes were considered more trustworthy.

Other studies suggest that humour is good for group cohesiveness and leads to richer, more efficient communication. One such study by Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, David J. Glew, Chockalingam Viswesvaran looked at how humour is associated with employee health (e.g. burnout, health), work-related outcomes (e.g. performance, job satisfaction, withdrawal), perceived supervisor/leader effectiveness and how it can counteract workplace stress.

They found that employee humour is associated with enhanced work performance, satisfaction, workgroup cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout, stress, and work withdrawal. That is no joke. Supervisor use of humour was associated with enhanced subordinate work performance, satisfaction, perception of supervisor performance, satisfaction with supervisor, and workgroup cohesion, as well as reduced work withdrawal.

As is the case with many studies in this area there is the challenge of defining what is funny (some people just don’t get it). We also need to be careful not to cross any lines with sexist or some other non-appropriate humour among work colleagues.

That aside, given the positive associations with being able to make a few wise cracks, perhaps humour should be a skill we look for when building teams or hiring a supervisor. Worst case scenario, they will be a good laugh on company nights out or a bit of light entertainment on a dreary Monday morning.

To get started try this out ‘I said to the librarian I hope you don't have a book on reverse psychology ‘. Funny?, well you had to be there. Btw, free humour tip: If you find yourself Saying "You had to be there" chances are you need to work on your funny game a bit more.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Crazy Deadlines good for Creativity?

So does a deadline help deliver creative solutions? I once worked with a colleague who always felt he needed a deadline to get things done, that kicked off the ‘backs to the wall’, ‘consider anything’ type of thinking that worked for him.

I came to realise over the years however that this guy was a procrastinator and it was the deadline shaking him out of his procrastinating routine that delivered for him. It wasn’t that the deadline made him anymore creative, it just got him focused on the job. That guy probably thought that serious time pressure was the only way to get resourceful when it came to delivering, because he had never actually tried it any other way.

I recently read an article on the Harvard Business Review by Teresa M. Amabile, Constance N. Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer which directly addressed the question of whether a deadline helps creativity.

The paper uses a case study from a software developer who was set an impossible deadline to deliver a complex specification that required coming up with creative solutions under very tight deadlines. Anyone who was worked in software development will identify with this. The industry has a long history of the time needed to complete complex work being underestimated, with dire consequences for those involved (never mind the software produced).

The summary from their research is that on days of the most extreme time pressure, the people involved were 45 percent less likely to come up with a new idea or solve a complex problem. Even worse, there was a kind of “pressure hangover,” with lower creativity persisting for two days or more.

According to Amabile and colleagues, ‘working under the gun’ as they put it, is a bad idea when complex, creative thinking is needed. I agree and I know plenty other software developers who have been there and would concur.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Set 'Get Better' Goals to drive Improvement

There are many ways to set a goal and endless guru tips on how to achieve various goals. One interesting take on it I found was in a 99u post by Elizabeth Grace Saunders on setting “get-better goals”.

This allows us to think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, but we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur. We should see setbacks as part of the journey and a chance to improve even more. By deliberately trying to get better at what we are doing we stand a great chance of succeeding.

Saunders gives the example of a toddler comparing their first shaky steps to the expert strides of an Olympic marathon runner. If the toddler did that, they would end up feeling hopeless that they would ever learn to walk, let alone run. But with steady acknowledgement of improvements as measured against their own past attempts, they will be running around in no time. Saunders  says “In the same way, you’ll want to celebrate incremental progress from your own past achievements instead of immediately measuring yourself against the top in the field”. Wanting to be the best from day one might not be the right approach, getting better every day could be a more useful strategy.

So if you are new to a job or career or have to learn a new skill, just set yourself goals on getting better each time, once the improvements come, the expertise will follow. Every marathon runner was once a toddler.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Because you're worth it

If we have had a bad day, maybe lost an important deal or got singled out for criticism by someone, we can feel pretty bad. When this happens people often think about their family, their good health or some other positive aspect of their lives. Psychologists call this ‘Self-affirmation’. It involves reminding ourselves of our self-worth when things go wrong.

Rather than only do this after things have gone wrong, a little self affirmation could be a useful daily habit. One study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests that Self-Affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. Highly stressed individuals who took time out to remind themselves of their self worth performed under pressure at the same level as participants with low chronic stress levels. They solved more problems that their stressed peers who did not indulge in a little self affirmation.

Another study showed that people who affirmed their self-worth make less errors than those who do not. Better again, they seemed to be particularly aware of mistakes they did make and corrected more errors.

The tip here is to consider taking time to remind yourself of your value as a person, in a way that is not tied to your work life. It can help reduce the effects of stress and make you a better problem solver in high pressure situations. This can also make you less likely to make mistakes and if you do make a few, it can help you learn from them and correct your behaviour.

So don’t be afraid to tell yourself how great you are, because you’re worth it and its worth your while

Friday, 3 May 2013

Be Centre Stage

Have you wandered into a meeting room, made small talk with whoever is already there  and took a seat without thinking about it that much? Does it actually matter where we sit? Maybe it does.

Most people make the unconscious assumption that people in the centre are most important and therefore don’t tend to notice their mistakes as much or interrogate their contributions. This is known as the ‘Centre Stage Effect’.

It is covered in a 2005 paper from Berkeley which looks at a number of studies.  It tested the centre-stage effect using observational data from a real television show, The Weakest Link. Results show that players assigned at random to central positions are more likely to win the game than those in extreme positions.

There are a number of other similar lab based studies which come to the same conclusion, we fail to consciously look at and accurately assess the 'important' person in the centre. This leads to a biased (although favourable) assessment of whoever is in that central position.

Moral of the story? Want to get away with it? Get to the meeting early and grab the centre seat. The guys on either side will take brunt of any criticism flying about.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The most urgent decisions might not be the most important ones

I read a really good post recently on time management. It put forward the idea of The Eisenhower Matrix. This is based on the notion that the most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones.
You may go into work  this morning with your tasks for the day mapped out, calls to make, meetings to attend. A few problems or decisions then cross your desk or inbox. You start reacting to whoever is shouting the loudest (hopefully just in the figurative sense). It is very easy to start doing the most urgent responses straight away. The end result may be that you do not allocate enough time (or in a really bad case forget) to deal with the most important tasks.
I've seen this happen quite a bit in software development where developers/project managers get urgent calls to fix bugs or make product changes. The rationale was often, 'we need to do this to win or keep a customer'. The important job of making sure you have a stable code base, that changes are peer reviewed, that the product development is driven by strategy not client whims can get ignored or put to one side. There is no deliberate decision made to drop the important aspects of the software development process, it just happens. The important stuff like version control and scheduled upgrades get left behind.
So if something does cross your inbox, figure out if it is urgent or important or both. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to figure out when to do it or who to delegate it to. You may have a little more time on your hands and get to make those important decisions at the right time. By getting the important decision right, in the long term you should have less urgent items landing as surprises in your inbox.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

If something happens, then you need a plan

We all do a bit of project planning every now and again. This can be for a formal large project with multiple goals and participants or a plan just to get an email put together and sent off.

Research by Gollwitzer etc al, 2006 suggests that we need to anticipate problems and set a series of ‘if then’ actions. This would be if the new piece of software is not live by an agreed date, then, we have a paper based system to use in the short term. In other words we look at what can go wrong, what can be outside of our control and develop contingency plans that are worked out in detail and ready to go.

When the inevitable does occur and some original deadline or action does not materialise, we are not left floundering, wondering what we can do about it or who do we call. Your ‘if then’ is ready to swing into action, you continue to feel in control. You stay in business.

This sounds like really basic advice and a really obvious thing to do. You would however be surprised by the number of people out there who are happy to wing it and not do this extra level of planning.
Once they come up with a plan they let it at that and treat the ‘if thens’ with a touch of ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’. That type of head in the sand thinking can be a serious threat to your business.
While you can't have an 'if then' for every project milestone, you could have them for the milestones that are an operational threat. I have seen clients unable to issue monthly invoices with devastating implications for cash flow because a data load into a new billing system hit a technical snag. This is particularly important for projects with several suppliers. When something does go wrong, each will point the finger at the other and cooperation to resolve the issue could be in short supply.
So review your project plan. Identify the junctures where failure will seriously jeopardise your organisation and put in your 'if then' plans for these. You will keep a degree of control and not be left at the mercy of suppliers and project managers. Always have an option open, if the worst then happens, you will be ok.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

What motivates the office flirt?

Know any flirty guys in your office? It turns out they may not be that happy in their job. A 2011 study from the University of Surrey suggests that men who flirt at work tend to be less satisfied with their job.

The BPS reports that Chadi Moussa and Adrian Banks from the University of Surrey asked 201 participants to complete a questionnaire measuring flirting behaviours at work, job satisfaction, self-reported job performance and personality. The participants (men and women) were aged 21-68 and came from a variety of employment sectors.

The researchers' strongest finding was that flirting at work was negatively related to job satisfaction for men. There was no significant relationship between flirting and job satisfaction for women.

Chadi Moussa says: “These findings contradict popular notions that flirting at work can make employees mores satisfied or perform better. If men are feeling unsatisfied in their roles, then they may resort to flirting to keep them entertained and this would partially explain the negative relationship. While flirting can have benefits, excessive flirting at work may be a sign that you’re unsatisfied with your job or simple bored."

If you are doing a review with a member of staff who is known as an office flirt, dig a little to see if they are really happy at work. If you are worried about employee retention, keep a really close eye on the flirts. Just make sure you don't fall for their one liners.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Mind Doodling?

Doodling, sounds like the actions of a distracted or idle mind. If you see a colleague doodling in a meeting you might think that they have switched off and won’t be much use when it comes to recalling who said what.
A 2009 study suggests different. In the study, 40 participants monitored a monotonous mock telephone message for the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a ‘doodling’ condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test.

This could be because learning may be improved when we use our hands, activating the hands helps activating the brain. It may also involve levels of processing theory. A lesson we can draw from this is that doodling may help if we are trying to remember information or be creative. Have you ever found yourself reaching for something to play with when you are trying to think a problem through or come up with some creative solution?

Next  time you see the guy in the meeting doodle, don’t despair, he could be recalling more than you are and even be a bit more creative. Try a bit more doodling yourself this week and see if it works for you.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Dress like it matters

If you want to stamp your authority at a meeting, how you dress could be important. Several studies over the years have shown how people in formal dress get quicker service in shops, have a better time asking for donations and find it easier to get the attention of strangers. They are also judged to be more intelligent and better academically qualified.
This also works the other way around, you walk into a shop, you might form an opinion about the cashier who checks you out, based on their dress, hair style, jewellery etc, though you know very little about this person.
This could be due to a mental shortcut we use called Social Categorization. In the social categorization process, we mentally categorize people into different groups based on common characteristics such as dress. Sometimes this process occurs consciously, but for the most part social categorizations happens automatically and unconsciously. We tend to think of leaders or ‘the boss’ wearing a suit, the professor with their tweed jacket or the successful stockbroker with their Armani attire.
So if you have a big interview or meeting coming up, get out the good suit and sharp shoes. A study that looked specifically at female applicants going for a management job found that those who dressed in a smart masculine style were perceived as more potent and aggressive and were more likely to land the job.
A similar dynamic can also occur for groups. A survey in 2009 found that business students rated companies with a formal dress code as more authoritative and competent. Organisations that had a relaxed dress code were seen as more friendly and creative.
So if you are going for a key meeting or interview choose your clothes carefully. If you want to sell your organisation to employees or clients as a hub of creativity or a bastion of authority, get you staff to dress accordingly.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Sorry I've forgotten your name

We have all been in meetings or at social events where we got introduced to a bunch of people. Afterwards when we try to recall the encounter, the names can be hard to remember. Quite often someone will say, ‘That guy from sales, what was he called?’. It is easier to remember all types of information about someone, than their name. We are better at remembering what they do, where they come from, what they specialise in, what their hobbies are. This is backed up by a number of studies.

One such study gave people fake names and biographies to remember. In recall tests, only 30% could recall surnames, compared to 68% and 69% for hobbies and jobs respectively.

In another study, participants found it easier to remember that a person is a potter, i.e. maker of pots, than if their surname is actually Potter.

The bad news is that the jury is out on why this occurs. Some theories are that lots of similar names (lots of Johns, Marys, Smiths) interfere with each other and this inhibits our ability to form durable memories about someone’s specific name.

However others would suggest that familiar names are easier to recall and it should be easier to remember someone called John or Mary, rather than a name we have never heard of before.

The good news is that research has shown that the semantic meaning we attach to names, or the different levels at which we process them, helps our ability to recall.

For example, we meet John Smith, we use his initials JS, he happened to be a nice guy so we associate ‘Just Super’ with his name. If he wasn’t that nice, maybe ‘Just Stupid’ would have been more appropriate. We have now given his name greater semantic significance and done some additional processing to come up with ‘Just Super’.

It is now much more memorable and we have different cues and levels of processing to assist recall. Next time we meet ‘JS’ ‘Just Super’ nice John, we won’t be stuck for a name or get caught trying to read his name badge. This might be why nick names tend to stick and are easily remembered.

The moral of the story is not to get too frustrated or embarrassed if you can’t recall a name, it happens to most of us. If you want to remember names better, associate them with some other information about the meeting or characteristics of the person involved. Don’t get too upset either if someone you meet can’t remember your name, it’s not personal. Just point them in the direction of this blog. Hopefully they will think you are closer to the 'Super' than the 'Stupid' end of the scale.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Be careful what you visualize

We have all heard of visualizing our goals. There are examples of football place kickers visualizing getting the last minute winner. Many golfers have visualized sinking that winning putt.

Research by Pham and Taylor at the University of California, suggests however that visualizing needs to involve the process of achieving your goal, not just the outcome. In other words, you visualize your run up to the ball, feet position, momentum, the contact with the ball, the release of the strike on the ball. Just visualizing the ball going between the posts is not enough.

Thinking about the process, in detail and ‘experiencing’ it via visualization helps us to focus the mind on potential problems, what needs to be right, what can go wrong and how to overcome any problems.

Just visualizing the outcome lets us prone to the ‘Planning Fallacy’ This is a cognitive error which affects most of us, regardless of experience. We continually fail to anticipate just how much of any plan can and will go wrong. We are hardwired to think everything will be much easier than it really will be.

In the research cited, students were asked to either visualize their ultimate goal of doing well in an exam or the steps they would take to reach that goal, i.e. studying.

The results were clear-cut. Participants who visualized themselves reading and gaining the required skills and knowledge, spent longer actually studying and got better grades in the exam.

Just imagining reaching a goal may be worse than ineffective, it may reduce our performance. In the study by Pham and Taylor, participants who just envisioned a successful outcome studied less and actually had reduced motivation.

So for visualization, like the song goes, “it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it”.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

What's your problem? How you describe influences how you solve

When problem solving, re-ask the question you are trying to figure out, but each time describe it a different way, thinking about what the problem really means. The way you describe a problem you are trying to solve influences how you think about it.

Different descriptions, allow us to think about it in different ways, we then end up with different perspectives and this increases the potential sources of a solution.

You could get different members of your team to each describe the problem in their own way or from their perspective. The differing descriptions could show up different avenues for a solution or work around. For example, a server or web site starts to run slow. The techies will have something to say about load balancing, VMware etc, the Customer Service Manager will have the end users in mind, the Sales Manager might consider it a PR / Sales problem.

Each perspective expands the problem but also expands the mitigating tasks you can employ e.g. contact all users and let them know there is a problem but you are working on it. This will reduce the inbound support calls. This frees up the techies to fix the issue and not get pulled into reactive inbound support calls. The Sales Manger contacts key clients with updates from the techies. When it is fixed, users can be contacted with the good news and the episode used as an example of how well your support works.

Put it another way. When you start solving a problem, you normally have a fairly specific description of what is wrong. You think about the problem in terms of how it presents itself. If you are trying to fix your car when it won’t start in the morning, you think about the battery, fuel, the starter, plugs or alternator.

When you describe your problem as being something other than, ‘How do I start the car?’, e.g. ‘How do I get to work?’, ‘How do I get someone to cover for me if I can’t get in?’, 'who can fix my car?' your thinking gets a little more abstract.

You now think about not having transport, not being able to keep to a schedule. As the details change, it leads to new insights and potential solutions. You might decide to call a mechanic, call work and put on your ‘out of office’ or work from home for a few hours.

That might be a better solution than dissecting your engine and figuring out if the spark plugs or starter is bust. You will still be late for work and may only have swapped one problem for another.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Tomorrow is closer than Yesterday

Heading back to work after the bank holiday. Does last weekend seem like ages ago, and work deadlines this week scarily close?

The Past feels psychologically further away than the Future. Recent research by Caruso et al (2013) showed that Valentine's Day will feel closer in time one week beforehand than one week after. This has been dubbed the ‘temporal Doppler effect’.

Caruso had a scale from 1 to 7 (1 is close in time, 7 being distant in time). Participants rated an upcoming Valentine's Day an average of 3.9 when it was one week in the future, but an average of 4.8 when it was one week in the past.

This could be a good thing. We appear to be future orientated. This may even be adaptive as it is useful in helping us plan, we are more concerned about (perceptively closer) future events. It may help us move on from past mistakes (‘that was ages ago’ type of feeling). It allows us to focus on and meet deadlines we think are imminent.

There could also be a downside however, as we tend to forget the past, repeat mistakes and focus on ‘getting it right next time’. Either way, as long as we know that we are prone to this way of thinking we can factor it in.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Network like a Spy

When it comes to networking, any good sales executive will seize the opportunity to go to a particular conference where the speakers are the go to guys in their given industry. It makes sense to get their take on what is happening, where future trends are headed. It is also very likely that there will be a good calibre of delegates in attendance to hear the gurus message. All that makes for great networking possibilities.

None of this is news. When it comes to networking, we have the rule of thumb, the more important people we can meet the better. The higher up you can network in your industry the better.

Consider another complementary approach. Network downwards. In her book ‘Work Like a Spy: Business Tips from a Former CIA Officer’ J.C. Carleson explains how it pays to establish relationships at all levels, from the secretary who can choose whether or not to put your call through, to the software developer who can give you the inside track on those quality control issues. The most effective networks are far-reaching in all directions, up and down.

So take time to get to know the admin staff, the delivery guys, in your own organisation and your clients organisations. There is more to networking than hob knobbing it at conferences.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Athletes 'die twice', first time is when they Retire

We will all retire at some stage, despite the best efforts of national governments to get us to work into old age. For many of us, hopefully retirement will be a happy process, it will be at a time of our choosing and in a manner that reflects how we want to spend our golden years.
It is not always that simple. I read an article on the BBC Sport website which looked at how sports psychologists explain why athletes struggle with retirement. We can all think of many examples of people who went from hero to zero after retirement, end up financially badly off, get hooked on addictive habits, abuse alcohol, struggle with relationship problems. Any regular follower of boxing will be able to name a few from recent years.
The article discusses the profound sense of sense of loss retired athletes experience. For years their identity was formed by their profession, people looked up to them for what they did and achieved. With retirement, that is gone.
There are also biological factors. For example, they no longer get their daily dose of serotonin from working out and dopamine from winning. Keeping fit is very different to being professionally active.
Working athletes have a regimented life with a focus on the daily routine they rely on to keep fit and compete. With retirement, this framework for how they spend their time, decide what to eat, how to socialise, disappears.
There can even be a grieving process, where a forced or untimely retirement can leave them feeling angry, in denial, making it hard to accept and move on.
The article makes the case well for athletes, but you could also see this translating into the work place, where the parallels are obvious. Perhaps we need to look at roles where identity is largely derived from the position in the workforce (e. the military) or where daily routine is heavily influenced by work.
Retirement should be enjoyable, but aside from the financial arrangements of the pension plan and the going away party, we may need to look at the lessons learnt from retired athletes and focus on the specifics we can quickly apply to ourselves and our older colleagues.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Sleep less, Facebook more?

So how did you sleep last night? I’m not making small talk, I’m just wondering how much time you are going to spend in work cyberloafing (your boss might say time wasting). Research shows that for every lost hour of uninterrupted sleep, employees are spending 12 additional minutes on this questionable activity (using company time to check personal emails and visit non-work related websites).
Previous research has found that a lack of quality sleep is related to problems with self-monitoring and self-regulation.  Sleepy people are less able to stay focused, less likely to suppress their prejudices, and less likely to control addictive impulses (perhaps like the dopamine hit we get from winning arguments mentioned in previous posts).

Its therefore not that hard to see how losing sleep, makes us unable to control the overwhelming impulse that most of us share of checking our Facebook or Twitter while at work.
For productivity, that type of behaviour can be a disaster. But as long as we know about it, we can plan around it or mitigate the effects. If you have staff members on call at night (e.g. out of hours tech support) and they get a few calls the night before, then don’t have them doing some intricate task the next day requiring prolonged focus. If you have a salesperson just off a long haul flight, it might not be a good idea to give them an early morning meeting with a difficult client. If a member of staff has new born baby, don’t be too upset if focus and productivity slip a little.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Breaking Bad News

You are entering a meeting. It’s an annual review with a key client. You have some good news, they now qualify for a loyalty discount and some bad news, you are closing the local office they would normally have dealt with.

How should you break the news? Research suggests that when we are up front about problems or short comings, people like us more, i.e. we bring the bad news up at the start of a meeting, rather than at the end. Mentioning it at the start is seen as refreshing honesty, keeping it to the end is seen as concealment, and we don’t like that.

The reverse is true for good news or achievements. Coming out with these at the start is seen as boastful, it’s almost as if you are trying to make an impression and get a favourable response. If the good news is left to the end, people may feel that you didn’t try to use it to manipulate them or get anything in return.

There could also be a memory effect at play here where we finish on a good note and that is the context in which our meeting is remembered.

Have a think about this, have you been in meetings where someone gave you bad news as they wrapped up, how did that come across to you?. I have had that happen and it’s not a good feeling.

Monday, 25 March 2013

When being Right is all that matters

We have all been in meetings where our position is challenged, someone contradicts our reasoning or opinion. The atmosphere gets a little heated. We come to a point where we go all out, drop any empathetic feelings and make our stand. We don’t care who we annoy or upset, along as we are proved to be right it doesn’t matter. This can be in the board room discussing some major project or among workmates discussing last nights football game.
If we reach the point in an argument where we feel we are going to get labelled as ‘wrong’ or somehow derided, the body makes a neurochemical choice about how best to protect itself. You are in fight or flight territory now.
If we fight and win, the brain releases hormones including  adrenaline and dopamine, which make us feel good, even dominant. It's the  type of sensation any of us would want to feel again and again. So the next time we're in a tense situation, we will fight, flight is less appealing.  We get addicted to being right.
You become a regular fighter in those cantankerous meetings, getting your adrenaline & dopamine hit. This has downsides for management style. If we always go into fight mode and want to win at the expense of someone else, it can make collaboration more difficult and damage relationships.
As a negotiator you become predictable, and as long as you think you have got your way (perhaps on a minor point), you are happy. As a communicator you become confrontational  and spend too much time arguing your perspective at the expense of exploring alternatives.
Learn to put winning an argument in context, if you get addicted to winning arguments, you have a blind spot in your decision making process. If you think I am wrong lets argue it and see how you feel if you win.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Sleep on it

Ever had a decision to make and decided to ‘sleep on it’? Or perhaps you go off and distract yourself at something else for a while before making that all important call. New research attempts to shed some light on the science behind the ‘sleeping on it’ strategy.
Brain imaging research from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the journal “Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,” finds that the brain regions responsible for making decisions continue to be active even when the conscious brain is distracted with a different task. The research provides some of the first evidence showing how the brain unconsciously processes decision information in ways that lead to improved decision-making.
This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making,” said J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory. “It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks, such as thinking about a math problem. What’s most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”
So for those big decisions, a nights sleep, the distraction of a good book, DVD or nice walk could help in allowing more time to process the decision and hopefully come up with a better outcome. If you are unsure about how useful this really is, sleep on it.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

It Costs Big if you can't say 'No'

I read a good article recently on Psychology Today by Peter Bregman about how to say 'No'.
This is a very under-rated skill to have. Saying 'No' is vital to keeping work and customer expectations at manageable levels. I have been guilty in the past, of failing to say ‘No’ when I knew immediately it was the right answer in the long term. What ensues is usually a lengthy and awkward process of realigning customer expectations and eventually telling them ‘No’. In the meantime, you probably have damaged customer relationships and wasted time figuring out how to get the message across.
This happens quite a bit in software start-ups that code their own product. Release versions and source code control run a little loose and it’s easy to say ‘Yes’ to an important client when they inevitably ask for a function or change request. At start-up phase pretty much any client is an important client.
However, you will find yourself making promises you can’t keep, burning the candle at both ends (working late / weekends) to come good on commitments when you should have said ‘No’. That leads to endless firefighting where you neglect the basics of making sure your strategic business systems are running properly (sales pipeline, support documentation, credit control, cost benefit analysis of activity).
Key staff will get frustrated at constantly working under pressure or jumping from one ‘priority’ to another and probably leave. You will more than likely rehire in a hurry because you need someone straight away. Because you have taken your eye off the ball on the fundamentals of the business you may neglect your sales process, prospect call backs etc, so the clients that made the initial request now become even more important (as other sales haven't grown as planned ). It then gets even harder to say 'No' to their next change request. On and on it goes.
If you are a start-up company in firefighting mode or constantly find yourself avoiding calls from clients, end up working weekends, late at night, ask yourself how often you have said ‘No’ to a request in the last week. Chances are it’s not very often. There is nothing wrong with being busy and firefighting, just so long as it’s for a strategic or commercially sound reason. If it’s purely because you could not say ‘No’, then it’s a problem